Glory of a lifetime: Chinese military flag-bearer remembers handover day in Hong Kong

Then 17-year-old Cai Chengwen remembers soldiers were prepared for any disruption on that historic day; he has since often been back to the city as a tourist

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 10:52pm

When Hong Kong changed from a British colony to a Chinese special administrative region 20 years ago, those living in the city witnessed the significant moment from different locations, on different jobs and with different feelings. All the little things they experienced, from a hug with Chinese officials to a change in police badges, will be remembered as parts of the city’s history.

On the wet, stormy night of June 30, 1997, Cai Chengwen, along with 508 other soldiers, arrived in Hong Kong hours ahead of the handover as part of the first contingent of Chinese troops.

He had been selected to be one of three flag-bearers to raise the national flag in the then headquarters of the British Army in Tamar.

But Cai said they were forbidden from rehearsing with the flag in Hong Kong because the British insisted the city was still under their rule until the last second, illustrating political tensions at the time.

“We found the flagpole to be shorter than the one we practised with in Shenzhen. We really needed to make some adjustments during the rehearsal,” he said. There was only an hour left before the start of the official ceremony, he recalled.

So he tried to fly the flag, a symbol of sovereignty, but was stopped by some British soldiers. “They did not allow us to rehearse with a real flag,” he said.

At the time, the then 17 year old, from a village in Shandong province, did not understand what all the fuss was about. It was only later that the reason dawned on him.

“It must be politics that played a role,” Cai said. “Hong Kong would belong to China only after midnight. Before that it was a contest over sovereignty.”

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The incident reflected the delicate relationship between Britain and China at the time. The two sides even tussled over the timing of when to raise and lower the flags in the former colony. A senior Chinese diplomat, An Wenbin, who was in charge of the handover ceremony, revealed representatives from both sides went through 16 rounds of talks concerning just two seconds of the event before reaching a deal.

Cai, now the father of an 11-month-old boy, described the experience as “the glory of a lifetime”. He recalled the streets being very clean when the bus he was on first entered the city through Huanggang port in Shenzhen. “The lights in the downtown area were very bright,” said Cai, who now lives in his hometown of Rizhao in Shandong province.

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But he had no time to enjoy the view becausePeople’s Liberation Army troops were on high alert just in case “hostile forces” emerged.

Cai said the 39 vehicles in his convoy were loaded with rifles, grenades and bullets, and both he and his comrades were ready for combat should anti-China forces have tried to prevent them from entering.

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A special aviation squad from Beijing was sent to Shenzhen to support the troops, and helicopters had their engines turned on the whole day. “The backup plan was to enter Hong Kong by helicopter,” he said.

However contingency plans were not needed and soldiers were greeted by New Territories villagers on their way to the barracks where they were met by Scottish members of the Black Watch regiment.

“They looked funny ... they were wearing some ‘British skirts’,” he said, referring to kilts, which the rural youth considered unmasculine. “They looked very old ... I doubted if they could really fight.”

As for the ceremony, Cai admitted he had to rein in his emotions when the national finally flew over Hong Kong and when the anthem was played. But he had no time to relax because the PLA believed the British had bugged their former base in Admiralty.

In preparation for the big day, Cai was put through 18 hours of tough training each day for six months in Shenzhen. “The physical [training] was so serious that many soldiers fell asleep standing up.” he said, adding that he also had to take part in countless flag-raising rehearsals. “I think I could have completed the task with my eyes closed.”

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Cai, who was 1.84 metres tall and weighed 62kg at the time, said flag-bearers were chosen for their height, appearance, broad shoulders, long legs, military skills and policial background.

Cai, along with the first batch of 4,000 PLA troops, moved into barracks vacated by the British. He was based at Stanley barracks, where conditions were significantly better than those over the border. Facilities included air conditioning, water heaters, swimming pool, library and billiards room.In Shenzhen, he could not even take a hot shower in winter.

His monthly income also rose from about 100 yuan to 700 yuan (HK$799) – a rise his comrades on the mainland could not imagine.

However, Cai decided to leave the army two years later, as he “desperately missed home”. “I left home when I was 16, and did not return home even once during the three years in the army.”

Even though his stay in Hong Kong was short, Cai still considered the city to be his “second home”, which led to him finding a job in Shenzhen where he lived for 15 years.

He worked for home improvement giant B&Q, which is based in Britain, and managed its first outlet in southern China before starting a hotpot restaurant. In 2007, he returned to Hong Kong, as a tourist.

His visit was the first of many. “People are very nice, and they follow the rules,” Cai said.

“The diversity of information in Hong Kong has changed me from being an ignorant teenager in a backward village to becoming a broad-minded adult.”

He also said he understood the frustrations of Hongkongers with those from the mainland, such as when they poured into the city to snap up milk powder for babies.

But he drew a line when it came to pro-independence sentiment in the city, calling supporters, especially youngsters, of being “ignorant” and “lazy”.

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“We are all Chinese. Why would you embarrass your own people?” Cai said.

But he believed such ideas were incited by “anti-China forces from overseas” and were shared among only a very small number of local people because none of his friends from Hong Kong harboured such sentiments.

“I want to ask them: are you sure [chanting pro-independence slogans] will bring any improvement to your life? A different nationality changes nothing if you don’t work hard,” he said.

Cai compared the relationship between the mainland and Hong Kong to a patient who seriously injures his arm in an accident.

When [the arm] is reattached to the body, there must be some discomfort ... This is normal,” he said.

“But the injured part is still part of the body. It will still be controlled by the brain.”